Best Practices for No-Till Farms in Canada

Mar 28, 2018

Research suggests moving to a no-till cropping system may have positive impacts on yield potential and soil quality. Are you ready to retire the plow?

Transitioning to a no-till operation is becoming a popular choice for farmers throughout Canada. With more and more research supporting the benefits of minimal-disturbance direct seeding, not to mention the extra time saved, it’s important to examine some of the common pitfalls associated with this system. Despite better soil quality and moisture levels retained in untilled land, some farmers may still not be getting their optimal yield potential out of their fields. Fortunately, there are some best practices that these growers can employ to fully benefit from retiring the plow.

Corn crops can benefit immensely from no-till situations, due to the retention of seedbed moisture and organic matter within undisturbed soil. However, without cultivation, crop residue may build up and cause issues with soil-to-seed contact and soil temperature. By impeding the transfer of nutrients to the emerging plant, plant growth can become uneven and young plants may underperform in competition with weeds.

One option to manage corn residue in a no-till situation is to avoid chopping stalks too short, leaving approximately 10 inches standing. Residue does the most damage if left against the soil, especially in large pieces that break down slowly. The result is a thick “mat” of corn residue that blocks moisture, lowers soil temperature and prevents seeds from reaching their ideal depth in the soil. However, leaving stalks to stand can help protect new plants by shielding them from wind. Standing stalks also allow for better moisture distribution into the soil.

No-till also poses some challenges for weed control. Without anything breaking the soil, weeds can use the opportunity to establish root systems and spread quickly. It’s important to use an appropriate schedule of herbicide applications to keep these weeds at bay. Due to the lack of tillage, weed seeds should germinate closer to the soil surface, making it easier to target them with burndown or pre-emergence herbicide applications. Using a strategic crop rotation can also help to control weed populations by allowing you to rotate chemistry to target different weed groups. Use a multi-year crop rotation strategy to reduce weeds and promote soil nutrient diversity.

Another challenge for recently converted no-till farmers is drainage. Without cultivation to even the soil surface, water can settle and create uneven moisture levels throughout the field. Using a cover crop can reduce pooling and benefit soil diversity. Over time, choosing cover crops or a strategic rotation will deposit important organic matter into the top layers of the soil, promoting better drainage and moisture retention on untilled land.

With effective management and the right environment, no-till systems can boost the overall yield potential of the land in the long-term. While many farmers have found success by dropping conventional tillage, some regions are not a great fit for no-till. Work with your agronomist to determine appropriate management techniques, products and seed characteristics for your farm.